A trans hermit reminds us that the church once saw sex difference as a matter of degree

(RNS) — Hard on the heels of a Vatican document adamantly rejecting trans and gender fluidity and condemning gender reassignment surgery, a Catholic hermit came out publicly as trans last month with the consent of his local bishop. Judging from the social media response, the announcement has sown seeds of confusion among the faithful and consternation among church leaders.

Brother Christian Matson lives as a hermit and a Benedictine oblate in Kentucky, both paths approved by Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington. Because the church permits both male and female hermits, the situation does not breach the gendered rules that govern monasticism in the Catholic Church.

The condemnations in the Vatican document, “Infinite Dignity,” are based on the Vatican’s assertion of male and female binary sex difference, which inextricably links the sexed body and gender identity. This idea dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught that men and women were biologically different, and in hierarchical relationship.

Aristotle’s views became influential in the medieval church in the mid-13th century, when the theologian Thomas Aquinas harmonized Aristotle’s pagan philosophy with Christian theology. Over the ensuing centuries, his teaching of binary sex difference imbued Catholic theology, particularly because it appeared to align with the separate and distinct creation of Eve from Adam’s rib in one of the two creation stories in the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Engraving of Galen by Georg Paul Busch. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Engraving of Galen by Georg Paul Busch. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

This Aristotelian-Thomist view of sex difference was not monolithic, however. Another view of sex and gender circulating in the Middle Ages was based on ancient Greek medicine as interpreted by the Roman physician Galen, whose ideas formed the foundation of medieval medicine. This perspective presented a fluid understanding of sex difference, complemented by an equally fluid understanding of gender difference.

According to Galenic medicine, what distinguished male from female were their relative positions on a spectrum of elements: heat and cold, dry and moist. The manliest men were at the hot and dry end and the womanliest women at the cold and moist end. In between were individuals with varying degrees of heat and cold. The balance of a body’s four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile) also influenced masculinity and femininity, contributing to each person’s unique complexion and temperament.

The humors and the elements together formed a continuum of sex and gender that elided the differences between men and women. The sexes were fundamentally the same substance, only differing in degree. This interpretation may be closer to the alternate creation story found in Genesis, Chapter 1, in which “man” is created from the same material at the same time, referred to with a plural pronoun: “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them.”

The fluid and flexible nature of men and women was embraced, indeed, valorized by the medieval church. During the Roman persecutions, Perpetua, martyred in 203, saw herself as a man preparing to enter the arena; “My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man.”

Perpetua’s bravery and fighting spirit caused her to move toward the masculine end of the continuum. Similarly, a male martyr’s sufferings feminized him, describing him as going through the pains of childbirth. Such metaphors of gender slippage reveal that ideas about sex and gender fluidity were part of Christianity from its beginnings.

Sex and gender slippage, however, did not correlate with equality of men and women, either in ancient or medieval terms. As with the Aristotelian binary, so too, in this worldview, men remained superior in both the biological and spiritual hierarchies. Women who moved along the continuum to become more masculine were praised for this sign of their masculine spiritual progress. Ambrose, the early bishop of Milan, distinguishing believers and unbelievers stated: “She who does not believe is a woman and should be designated by the name of her bodily sex, whereas she who believes progresses to complete manhood.”

There were also times when men needed to move along the continuum to become more feminine. A man who was too hot would be a slave to his bodily desires, especially lust. St. Hildegard of Bingen suggested that a priest could control lust by taking measures to literally cool his flesh. The lives of male saints such as Godric of Finchale, Aelred of Rievaulx and Bernard of Clairvaux present the man immersing himself in icy waters to cool off his body. Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln in the 1200s, observed that he did not experience spontaneous seminal emissions because his temperament was cooler than that of other men.

A depiction of Wilegefortis with a beard. (Image courtesy Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

A depiction of Wilegefortis with a beard. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Women, too, tried to modify their bodily temperature. In the sixth century, St. Radegund employed various strategies to increase her physical heat to become more masculine, including pressing hot irons onto her flesh and jumping into hot coals. At the other end of the Middle Ages, in the 14th century, St. Catherine of Siena would go to the baths not for sensual pleasure but to find the areas of boiling water to scorch her flesh.

In the 12th century, the monk Joseph, a brother in the Benedictine monastery at Schönau, was found upon their death to be sexed female after living their whole life in the monastery undetected. Far from causing consternation, this gender fluid monk was cause for celebration by their brothers.

Hairiness also had implications for sex and gender. As heat was believed to be needed to open the pores and externalize hair, clean-shaven monks were providing public testimony of their rejection of the masculine heat that caused lust and uncontrolled desires. Upon death, the bodies of male saints were often found to be soft, smooth and hairless, “like a woman.” For women, the opposite was true. There are stories about Wilegefortis, Uncumber and Liberata, all marriage resisters, who grew beards in a biological sign of their chastity.

Why, given the acceptance of gender fluidity in medieval religious life, is the 21st-century church so obdurate in imposing hierarchical binary sex difference? Binary sex difference privileges one pagan view of human biology over another, both equally inaccurate. It privileges one creation story over another, to believers both equally accurate. It utterly ignores the insights of contemporary science, medicine and psychology.

Yet, binary sex difference continues to be the choice — a theological choice — of the church’s male leaders. We can only surmise that they know it is based upon the subordination of women.

(Jacqueline Murray is University Professor Emerita in history at the University of Guelph in Ontario. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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